By Pat Donnelly
Man, has this team exceeded almost every expectation in so many ways so far this year. As the holiday season has arrived, there are a lot of things to be thankful for with this team such as Patrice Bergeron’s mere existence, Brad Marchand’s stardom, David Backes’s presence, or Tuukka Rask’s absolutely sensational play. I wonder why there was no mention of the defense in that list… Now back to the point of this article, what should we be truly thankful for as Bruins fans in this time of reflection, giving thanks, watching football and experiencing food comas?
Young guns, rookies, and prospects.
Did you ever think you would see the day that there would be three rookies on the opening night roster? Or one of those rookies playing significant ice time? Did you ever think that four rookies would see good amounts of ice time at some point in this young season? What about a 20 year-old third-year player earning top minutes or top power play time, and thriving?
If you answered no to any of these questions, your reasoning is well-found and a completely fair judgement. It is incredibly hard for young players to thrive in Claude Julien’s system as defensive play is a must and Claude just holds them to a shorter leash than most veterans. However, it is like this way in many other systems across the NHL. These four aforementioned rookies would be Brandon Carlo, Austin Czarnik, Sean Kuraly, and Danton Heinen. Said 20 year-old would be David Pastrnak.
Heinen notched 93 points in 81 games in his two year career at the University of Denver and posted two assists in two games with Providence in the AHL last year. The 21 year-old started the season with the big club and played on the top power play and the second line with David Krejci. Heinen showed the skill, promise, and playmaking ability he displayed at the University of Denver, but he didn’t produce at the highest level to maintain a spot as he was sent down to Providence after putting up zero points in seven NHL games. He has posted five goals and three assists in nine games with Providence since being sent to the minors. There is no need to worry as he is still very young and still physically maturing. Don’t sleep on this kid in the not so distant future.
Sean Kuraly has only had a brief stint five games in the NHL because of David Pastrnak’s injury and suspension. The 23 year-old played very serviceably on the fourth line and showed the determination, hard-working style, and grit that many in the organization have come to expect from this kid. Kuraly put up 93 points in 154 career NCAA games, serving as captain in his senior year at Miami University (Ohio). This year is his first professional season so there is an expected adjustment period. Despite posting no points in five games in the NHL and two assists in ten games in the AHL, Kuraly has impressed with his strong work ethic, leadership ability, and his willingness to go to the dirty areas, be a net-front presence, and outwork others. It is probably safe to say that we shouldn’t expect huge numbers from this kid, but it is fair to project a bottom six forward who will work his tail off every night and who could be around for a long time.
It hasn’t been outstanding numbers so far for Austin Czarnik, but Kuraly’s former college co-captain has opened some eyes this season. The 23 year-old Czarnik came up with 169 points in 159 games at Miami (Ohio), serving as captain during his junior and senior years. Czarnik began the season in Boston with a slow start, was sent to the AHL for a brief period (where he scored three points in two games), and has since returned to the NHL in recent weeks. Last year, Czarnik was astounding, putting up 61 points in 68 AHL games in his first professional season. The Michigan native only has five points in 18 NHL games, but seems to have found a home at right wing on the third line although he is a natural center. Czarnik is very undersized, coming in at 5’9” and 161 lbs, so obviously he will not blow anyone away right now since he is playing against much more physically mature men instead of kids. He has demonstrated that he is willing to battle in the dirty areas, play hard every game, and take on bigger and stronger opposition. Czarnik has unbelievably blazing speed and an incredible playmaking ability, so the future is very bright with this one.
How can you not be thankful for the emergence of Brandon Carlo? This kid is something special. The 6’5”, 203 lb, 19 year-old has been more than impressive. Carlo has been a rock on the top pairing and has logged an average of 22 minutes of ice time per night, not to mention the fact that he’s a teenager. He is a model of the modern defender: a puck-moving defenseman who can contribute to the offense and be relied on his own zone. The Colorado native goes about his business quietly but is hard-hitting, has a powerful shot, and is very speedy in a straight line. Carlo has lived up to every scouting report on him that led into the 2015 draft as his skating ability, mobility, shot blocking, and shutdown defensive tactics have turned a lot of heads this season. Carlo, one of Boston’s two second round picks in 2015, has 2 goals and 2 assists in 22 games, respectable numbers for any sort of defenseman. What we’re seeing is a surefire career top four, if not top two defenseman who has nothing short of tons of upside and potential to offer this club.
Where do I even begin with David Pastrnak? The third-year phenom is living up to the hype that has surrounded him since he was drafted back in 2014. In 16 games this season, Pastrnak has scored 13 goals (2nd in the league) and added 4 helpers for 17 points, a point per game. The 20 year-old Czech has scored a goal in all but one road games he has played in. He has been absolutely fantastic in all three zones as he is much more improved defensively and is playing very physically. It is obvious that Pastrnak committed himself to bulking up and adding muscle this past offseason as he is playing much bigger, outmuscling and outworking opponents, and asserting sheer dominance with or without the puck. His dazzling playmaking ability and hands will only improve as we are seeing a star emerge. He scored 15 goals and 26 points in 51 games last year, if he wasn’t hurt for the better part of two months, Pastrnak could very well have scored 25 goals. Do not be surprised if he scores not 25, not 30, but possibly 40 goals this year. What can I say, hot takes only around here.
Someone else to be thankful for is Frank Vatrano. Vatrano started last season in the AHL, but after scoring 10 goals in as many games, he was brought up to the NHL. Vatrano didn’t post huge numbers (11 points in 39 games) but was more than exciting to watch in his two stints with the big club last year. In between his two NHL runs, Vatrano had a 30 game period in which he scored 30 goals and 43 points. Those stats are no joke whatsoever, 30 goals, 13 assists, and 43 points in 30 games! He finished the year with 55 points in 36 AHL regular season games. Heading into this season, it was almost a certifiable guarantee that we would see Vatrano playing a top six role, but foot surgery put his season on hold. He began skating the other day, and is reportedly ahead of schedule in his recovery, so it is only a matter of time until we finally have a way to take Jimmy Hayes, who finally scored a goal, out of the lineup for an extended period of time.
Those were just a few of the young prospects, future stars, and glimmers of hope the Bruins have coming up the pipeline. This team’s prospect pool may not be as deep as those of the Maple Leafs, Sabres, or Coyotes for example; however, there is certainly a good amount of bright spots. Although there are many things I’m thankful for when it comes to the Boston Bruins, I am definitely most thankful for the younger guys (specifically David Pastrnak and Brandon Carlo) who are making an incredible impact, and those who could be making the same impact very soon.